It took two years for Ed Subkis to snag StoryCorps for a local residency—a long time, considering how ripe Asheville is for such an endeavor.
“Our number finally came up,” says Subkis, general manager of NPR station WCQS 88.1 FM.
The beloved public-radio project, founded by award-winning documentarist David Isay, began as a wee recording booth set up in Grand Central Terminal. New Yorkers were invited to come inside and spill their stories, and, like subway buskers on a chilly day, the notion multiplied.
Today, StoryCorps is a nationally traveling sensation complete with vintage Airstream trailers outfitted as recording studios. In six years, many thousands of non-famous Americans have shared their warm memories and dark secrets inside these mobile booths—and also with the world outside, if regional or national NPR outlets decide to air their stories.
Among the organizations partnering with WCQS to achieve a solid cross-section of local participants are the YMI, ABCCM and Habitat for Humanity. “Storytelling is so important to Appalachian culture,” stresses Subkis. “The tradition of oral history in the mountains is so strong.”
And the peaks in the city’s timeline harbor their own potential tales. Subkis muses on Asheville’s various booms and busts, including its medical-haven years from the mid-1800s through the Great Depression, when TB-sufferers flocked here for healing mountain air; the Gilded Age that spawned the Biltmore House and, a little later, the Grove Park Inn; and the current landscape-changing influx of retiring Baby Boomers.
Underneath sweeping movements and earthshaking eras, StoryCorps’ power lingers in the quiet moments. Recordings are structured as tales “between intimates”—two people who answer one another’s questions, not a narrator’s. “It’s any two people with a close personal connection—co-workers, old friends, army buddies,” explains Subkis, although family members comprise the bulk of the project’s participants.
A facilitator remains unobtrusively on hand, and subjects can spark their conversation with StoryCorps’ list of suggested questions. But most interviews are powered by their own meaningful weight—the peculiar subtexts stirred up by shared blood and history.
Marisa Karplus, a senior coordinator at StoryCorps’ New York headquarters, says that “a lot of tears” have been shed in the booths; she also offers some of her favorite family segments, including a Florida mother who talks with her 11-year-old son about her sometimes-rocky marriage with his father.
“Parents speak to their children differently in private than in public,” notes Karplus. “Hearing their conversation is a great sort of window into their little world. She is speaking so openly, so candidly, and the son is listening so intently and respectfully. She tells him how hard you have to work at marriage, and it’s a beautiful moment. He really learns something.”
A selection of the series’ first 10,000 interviews was recently anthologized in the book Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project. However, the idea is only as fresh as its latest interviews, and for his part, Subkis can’t wait to hear what Asheville has to say: “It’s one of those shows that always makes you stop whatever you’re doing and [tune in]. We are so excited to be able to share this with the people in our region.”
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom.]
Interviews will be conducted in the StoryCorps MobileBooth, to be
located at 73 Broadway—across from WCQS—for six weeks, March 26
through May 2. Participants receive a recording of their talk, and
some stories will be locally (and possibly nationally) aired. To
reserve time, call (800) 850-4406. For more information about the
interview process, see www.storycorps.net